As the Catholic Church struggled to recover from the tumultuous effects of the Protestant Reformation, art historian Elizabeth Lev believes that it was the Church’s embrace of art that effectively saved the faith. Lev, an Americanborn, Rome-based scholar, is one of the most sought after guides in Rome who makes the treasures of the Eternal City more relevant than ever.
In her new book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in CounterReformation Art, Lev chronicles how individuals such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and lesser known artists such Annibale Carracci and Lavinia Fontana, turned to stone and canvas to combat challenges to the faith.
Why after the Protestant Reformation, where language (95 theses, in fact!) had been used to contest Catholicism, did the Church turn to art to recapture the essentials of the faith?
“The printed word can be painful, as anyone who has been trolled on the Internet will tell you. In the wake of Martin Luther’s famous theses, a flood of printed pamphlets overwhelmed people with conflicting information, polemical statements, and sometimes outright name-calling. While the Catholic Church excelled at scholastic tomes, literary click bait was not its forte, so it turned to art, where it had 1300 years of experience of communication through images. While the Protestants were debating to clast or not to clast with icons, the Catholic were sponsoring beautiful images that would draw people together, gazing in the same direction at artwork designed to point to the divine. These paintings still attract millions of viewers today, even though many tourists no longer understand the teachings or the stories behind them. It was a brilliant PR coup, deploying artists as visual preachers to the public.”